In our daily lives we all have a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, what does privacy mean in the digital age when increasingly our every move is being tracked and recorded? A number of organizations have raised concerns about digital privacy, including such disparate institutions as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Heritage Foundation. In March of this year the United Nations published a report calling on governments to respect privacy as a universal right in the digital age. The author of the report, Joseph Cannataci stated: “The issue of government surveillance deserves more attention than ever. I am deeply concerned that the right to privacy will simply not experience a full transition to the digital age.”
So why is there so much concern? As governments have moved aggressively to combat terrorism and control crime, there has been a proliferation of public surveillance. Reliable data is difficult to obtain, but in 2014 it was estimated that there were 245 million video surveillance cameras operating worldwide. According to IHS, in 2016 there were 62 million cameras in North America alone, approximately one camera for every six people. Adding to the concerns about privacy, a large number of these cameras are installed and operated by private companies. For example, a company called Vigilant Solutions has captured more than 2.2 billion photos of license plates, along with their corresponding location and timestamp. The company then sells these data to more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies. It can be difficult and time-consuming for an investigator to get a court to approve tracking of a vehicle, but it’s perfectly legal to buy the same data from organizations such as Vigilant.
When you combine this omnipresent video surveillance with improved facial recognition and advancements in big data analytics, it can be argued that our time-honored concept of privacy no longer exists. So remember to smile the next time you step outside of your home, because you’re definitely being watched.
Doug Young Ph.D.
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